Key issues in OER and how we just might overcome them

We are looking here at issues in Open Education Resources (OER) and how they may be overcome. I may earn a badge for this, which is fun. I run a programme that issues “badges” but have never earned one myself.

Reading some of the materials, such as a 2007 report by distinguished academics reviewing the OER movement (Atkins et al, 2007) there is a bit of a striking gap between the world the authors optimistically look forward to, and the reality we live in. OER are available, but the reality is that most courses are still designed by individual institutions, with many lecturers preparing their own notes. Clearly, there are issues that account for this gap, and we are asked to identify three.

First, I would identify the issue of quality control. In a provocative attack on OER, blogger and consultant Crispin Weston identified the key problem very simply:

“…the quality of the resources themselves and the pedagogies they represent are poor.” (Weston, 2012)

He convincingly argues that the lack of any sort of market in this area means that good resources do not crowd out bad – the bad are simply left in place, generally reflecting poor and simplistic pedagogies. For an educator looking to use OER, how do they locate and identify good quality ones?

The second key issue, to my mind, is lack of funding or even much recognition for creation of OER. In his paper on models for sustainable OER, Downes (2007) seems to envisage learners producing OER in a sort of ongoing cycle, which doesn’t seem to me like a recipe for generating quality content – that takes time, expertise and hard work. Few people will be willing or able to do this for free.

A third key issue is that of common standards. Ideally, OER would be generated that could slot into any course but of course the myriad systems, cultures and conventions that we find in education at all levels makes this challenging. Even if you can track down the resources you need, will you be able to incorporate them into your course easily?

This analysis tallies up with a striking observation about the whole open-source movement made by Lanier (2011), in many ways a digital idealist, who pointed out that the most creative developments in modern technology, such as Google, Adobe Flash and the iPhone, came out of very closed, proprietary environments:

“An honest empiricist must conclude that while the open approach has been able to create lovely, polished copies, it hasn’t been so good at creating notable originals. Even though the open-source movement has a stinging countercultural rhetoric, it has in practice been a conservative force.”

Should we honestly admit that the best educational resources come out of well-funded institutions, not volunteers freely giving their time, and that comprehensive, high quality open source content is not likely to arise spontaneously?

But this might point to a way forward. One mechanism that can claim to have solved many of the problems associated with open-source software is the Apple app store. This encourages developers to invest their time and energy in creating good apps, because there is a revenue-sharing arrangement in place that will allow them to profit from it. Users benefit from some level of approval and quality control from Apple, and a robust ratings system gives a good rough and ready idea of how good an app really is.

An app store equivalent for education? A mechanism which encourages educators to generate good content, working to a set of defined standards. Institutions pay to licence the content and the originator gets a share. Who would run this? Would it be accepted? I don’t know. But I believe it is worth thinking about.


Atkins, D., Brown, J.S. & Hammond, L. (2007) A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation [online]. Available at (accessed 25 March 2013).

Downes, S. (2007) ‘Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources’, Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, volume 3 [online]. Available at (accessed 25 March 2013).

Lanier, J. (2011) You are not a gadget, London, Penguin.

Weston, C. (2012) ‘MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles’, Ed Tech Now, 29 December [online]. Available at (accessed 25 March 2013).


Filed under H817 Openness and innovation in elearning

11 responses to “Key issues in OER and how we just might overcome them

  1. Hello Daniel,

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for the mention and I very much agree with your conclusions. I should note that I am not against OER in principle – I just think that they need to find their sustainable niche within a larger ecosystem (much of which will be commercially driven). What I am against is state funded OER programmes, flying under the rather disingenuous proposition that their outputs are free.

    Relevant to your second point about the ongong improvement cycle, I wrote about this at last year’s JISC conference at The author must be incentivised incrementally to improve the content – and some sort of financial payback seems to me to be the best was of doing this.

    I think there is definitely a place for the micro-software App Store (or iTunes model) – but these niche products only fly when they can plug into an integrated environment.

    Your third point is I think critical. None of this stuff works without interoperable data – and it was on this supposition that I set up SALTIS ( in 2007 and now chair the BSI committee for technical standards for learning, education and training. SALTIS has been dormant since the closure of Becta, but I am on the point of setting up some new technical groups on (1) e-textbooks, (2) ADL TinCan and (3) competency and curricula standards – any people interested in producing OER who might like to get involved should drop me a line.

    Many thanks, Crispin.

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  3. I don’t think an app store type model would work except for a self-employed teacher — multiple small transactions are only viable when the buyer has full budgetary control, as any layers of bureaucracy introduce the dreaded concept of “sign-off”….

    • Niall, …or if there were a standard or default contract that recognised the teacher’s right to make money on the side from course development. To some degree, this is already recognised in practice as teachers commonly take course materials with them when they move to another job, so that the first school or college rarely enforces what in most jobs would be regarded as its IP rights. I think there would be a strong public interest in making this non-enforcement of IP by the learning provider general. Most schools also tolerate the earning of income, e.g. by accepting private tuition from students. Crispin.

      • The fact that teachers take their materials with them is probably quite relevant to any discussion on open learning materials, because there has always been some degree of sharing between colleagues.

        But perhaps more importantly, it highlights the problems of reuse of materials. The last teacher’s stack of papers is of little practical use to his successor as there’s rarely any explanation of the logic of the course structure, which often is because the teacher himself doesn’t fully recognise the logic that he has developed in an ad hoc manner over the years, as a reaction to circumstance and due to interaction with other course resources/materials used over the years.

        I teach English to speakers of other languages, and I find even professionally produced books difficult to work with, because even when I’m provided with a teacher’s guide, I still don’t understand why the book wants me to do this next. Many of these books even suggest that the teacher can substitute their own tasks for some of the set ones, but with insufficient information on the goals of the tasks, how is the teacher expected to select an appropriate substitute task?

        This perhaps is the biggest challenge for OER: experienced teachers don’t always give enough conscious thought to materials development to allow true collaboration; instead relying on their own intuition, which is sufficient only within their own classroom as a closed system.

      • Reply to Niall at 8.33 p.m. –

        I completely agree, there is a huge gap between authoring for yourself and authoring for a third party. I am actually quite an OER sceptic – but I like Daniel’s suggestion that teachers who like authoring course content should be given a route to make it a supplementary – ultimately a replacement – business. In a way you could say that the way to make OER work is to stop it being OER.

        The only reason I cited the example of taking materials with you is because this is an example of the employer not asserting their rights to IP in anything produced by the employee in the course of his/her job.


      • Thanks both for your comments. Niall, I completely agree that lack of context is a major issue with OER and limitation on their use. But in certain situations I still think it can work. If I take my own field of education, which is business, there are many concepts and models that students need to understand before moving on to critiques, case studies and so on. Examples would be Porter’s 5 forces, the marketing mix, structure of accounts etc. Wouldn’t it make sense for talented educators to create a set of materials that explain these concepts and make them accessible via an App store-like mechanism? Ratings would allow users to identify the best, the educator gets some payment and universities save time and money by licensing them rather than creating them from scratch. What we are missing is anyone in the education world with the technical and financial muscle of Apple or Google who could make this happen, but that raises a whole different set of issues…

      • Yes, I certainly agree it makes sense in theory — my objection is logistical and historical.

        There have been movements in every sphere, not only education, to make “pick-n-mix” style resources, but it usually winds up as just another single-supplier system. Consider pay TV. Buy the channels you want… until somebody starts bundling the channels, because economies of scale make this cheaper for the end user.

        Lots of enterprise software is designed to be compatible with other people’s software, and yet when it comes down to it, it’s always cheaper to buy the full suite from a single supplier than it is to buy individual components from different suppliers.

        And bringing us back into education, “resource based learning” was all the rage a few decades ago. “Resource based learning” wasn’t much different in theory from “learning objects” — a teacher had a collection of “resources” (worksheets, activity cards etc) and these were used as the teacher saw fit. But when I was at school, I have to say that all the “resources” for a given subject were typically sourced from a single supplier. In essence, then, my school had simply bought a textbook, just one that was in pieces, rather than a single volume.

        That “bundling” of resources will repeat again with any paid-for objects or OERs, because companies with large collections of these resources will be able to offer a “complete” set at a far more attractive price than people will be able to build their own sets from individual resources. And it doesn’t matter that this is missing the point of the exercise, because when it comes down to it, money talks.

      • On context. This has been a major argument about the need for disaggregation and sequencing specifications – ah, people say, but all disaggregation does is to muck up the context/progression produced by the original author.

        I have posted another piece on my blog to address this point, at

        Basically, I think we have a very flat ecosystem in which everybody starts by going back to first principles and, from the perspective of OER, they cannot create the sophistication that is required for useful instructional activity. I think we need good, commercial high level tools, which amateur developers can populate with their own activity instances.

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